Report Faults Housing Program

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fairfax County needs to direct more of its affordable housing dollars toward low-wage workers such as janitors, service and retail employees and child-care workers, according to a study released this month.

The report, prepared by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a District-based group, and Tenants and Workers United, located in Alexandria, said the county has made considerable strides in trying to preserve affordable housing for residents who make more than 60 percent of the region's median income. That includes, for instance, families of four making between $53,000 and $100,000 a year.

But the report, "Ensuring Housing Opportunities in Fairfax," said that the county has not reserved enough units for a family of four earning less than $44,600 a year. The report urged officials to steer more funds toward housing for people at the lowest income levels, including those who make less than $20,000 a year.

Using 2005 Census Bureau data, the study found that 85 percent of renter households earning between $20,000 and $35,000 lived in housing they probably could not afford without hardship; it found that 78 percent of renter households earning between $35,000 and $50,000 were in the same circumstances.

The report defines affordability as 30 percent of household income or less being spent on housing, which is the federal standard. Federal statistics estimate that the Washington region's median income for a family of four was $89,300 in 2005.

"While almost everyone feels the pinch of ever-increasing housing costs, the data shows that families earning less than $50,000 a year are the ones predominantly spending over 30 percent of their income on housing," the report said.

In 2005, Fairfax set aside one penny of every dollar brought in by the real estate tax for affordable housing. Thus far, the initiative has succeeded in keeping more than 1,000 affordable housing units, according to Fairfax officials. Under that funding structure, 20 percent -- or 197 -- of the units preserved have been within reach of those whose households earn up to $44,650 -- 50 percent of the median for a family of four. Meanwhile, 389 units -- or nearly 40 percent -- have been preserved for those who make between 50 and 60 percent of the median -- roughly between $45,000 and $53,500 a year. One hundred and forty-four units also have been preserved for those who make up to the area median income.

"Our point is that there is very little for the folks at the very bottom," said Jon Liss, executive director of Tenants and Workers United, referring to the number of units preserved under the fund. "Workforce housing needs to be for all people who work, not just a narrow description of working people."

Liss said the county needs an ordinance setting strict quotas to ensure that those at lower incomes get more of the affordable housing units.

Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that he shares some of the observations of authors of the study, but he said that the affordable housing program is designed to help a broad spectrum of people -- from janitors to schoolteachers -- and that the county has made steps toward addressing the needs of those living at the bottom of the income scale.

He also pointed to county statistics that show that an additional 200 units have been preserved for workers earning low incomes through other county programs.

"Progress has been made . . . and more progress should be made," he said in an interview.

He added that he did not agree with setting rigid numbers for income groups because that could limit the board's flexibility in acquiring affordable units.

"The purpose of the [affordable housing fund] is to help people who serve the community live here," he said, "but we have multiple goals."

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